A large site on what used to be part of Utah's Bears Ears National Monument contains what "may be the densest area of Triassic period fossils" in the U.S., if not the world, according to paleontologists.

The land where the fossils were discovered is no longer protected after the Trump administration reduced the size of the monument by more than 80 percent in December 2017. The site could fall to mining claims or "multiple-use" management practices that could affect the integrity of fossils in the area.

"Within the paleontology community, the size of this site and the potentially large number of specimens buried there represent an extraordinary opportunity to expand our knowledge of species that lived during the Triassic period," Tracy J. Thomson, coordinator of the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists conference, where the discovery was announced, said in a statement released by The Wilderness Society (TWS).

"There is an incredible amount of work yet to be done and we hope that paleontological sites like this one will get the protection they need before more of our prehistoric past is forever lost to looting or irreplaceably damaged by mining in the region."

Enter the 'Portal to NeCrocPolis'

A scientist works with a fossilized snout recovered from a dig site in what used to be part of Bears Ears National Monument A scientist works with a fossilized snout recovered from a dig site in what used to be part of Bears Ears National Monument. (Photo: The Wilderness Society)

The discovery was announced by Rob Gay, who had been excavating the site since 2016.

So far, the fossil fragments include the skulls of three toothy and long-snouted phytosaurs, reptiles that bear a striking resemblance to modern crocodiles. That was the inspiration for the site: the "NeCrocPolis."

While the fossil record for the phytosaur is extensive, according to TWS, the site represents an opportunity to uncover rare whole specimens of the creature.

"If this site can be fully excavated, it is likely that we will find many other intact specimens, and quite possibly even new vertebrate species," Gay said.

The NeCrocPolis site lies within the original boundary of Bears Ears National Monument, which had protected it from land claims and development. Following the shrinking of the monument's size from 1.35 million acres to 220,000 acres, the site is now in the control of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

According to National Geographic, lands controlled by the BLM have some protections, but not nearly as many as those designated national monuments. This includes a less robust government presence and ranger patrols in the area to prevent looting, something that happened to the site prior to its national monument designation. While the looted remains were eventually recovered, the incident speaks to the wider concerns now that the park lacks national monument protections.

Ends of limb bones collected from the NeCrocPolis site These ends of limb bones are only a few of the hundreds of fossils collected from the NeCrocPolis site so far. (Photo: The Wilderness Society)

Scientists' worries for this site — as well as other sites in Bears Ears, and the also-reduced Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument — are multi-pronged. The first concern is that lands could revert to what the BLM calls "multiple-use" management. In these instances, the agency manages "public land resources for a variety of uses, such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation and timber harvesting, while protecting a wide array of natural, cultural and historical resources."

Business interests in Utah, long opposed to federal management of lands in the state because it limits their use for development, could apply pressure to industrially develop lands with scientific and cultural value, leading to the destruction of fossils.

Second, like many researchers on the monuments' lands, Gay relied on grants that specifically funded research on these monument-designated lands. Now that the NeCrocPolis is no longer considered part of a national monument, the status of the grant used to fund the dig — funded, perhaps ironically, by a 2017 BLM program — could be up in the air.

"While a discovery of this magnitude certainly is a welcome surprise, protecting such resources was the very purpose of Bears Ears National Monument," Scott Miller of TWS said in the organization's statement.

"That President Trump acted to revoke protections for these lands is outrageous, and that he did so despite the Department of the Interior knowing of this amazing discovery is even more shocking. I hope the courts will act quickly to restore protections for Bears Ears National Monument before any more fossils are looted from the area and lost to science."

Ancient fossils found on lands once part of Bears Ears National Monument
Triassic fossils found on lands that were previously part of Bears Ears National Monument could fall under 'multiple-use' management.